The northwestern city of Basel is a fascinating place. It sits close to the borders of France and Germany, making the city both highly accessible and very culturally diverse. Despite being the third largest city in Switzerland, it’s a very underrated tourist destination as it’s mostly known for contemporary art and urban design. However, even if you have no affiliation with the arts, Basel is a worthwhile destination with a beautiful medieval old town with centuries-old structures and cathedrals.
This cultural hotspot has a wide variety of activities, sights, and excursions fit for any kind of traveler.
Basel’s medieval old town is centered around the Marktplatz and branches out to several stone streets lined with medieval churches, old homes, and fountains. It’s one of the most well-preserved old towns in Europe and has a lot of stories to tell. You can walk through the town on your own, but taking a walking tour is highly recommended. It gives you a better appreciation of the rich history embedded in the walls and streets of the town. If you don’t want to pay for a guide, you can pick up a brochure at the Tourist Center and follow the marked paths for a DIY learning experience.
No trip to Basel is complete without setting your eyes on the impressive Basel Münster. Its prominent spires and brightly colored roof tiles can be seen from miles away. It’s fronted by the Münsterplatz which used to be the site of a Roman fort. This 18th-century square is loomed over by the red sandstone of the cathedral, its materials taken from the Vosges mountains of France between the ninth and13th centuries. The Basel Münster has gone through several tragedies, including an earthquake in 1356 and an attack by Protestants in 1529. However, much of its history remains intact and alive and can be enjoyed in the historical museum within the cathedral.
Less than a kilometer away from the Old Town’s Center is a curious landmark called the Tinguely Fountain. Sculpted by Jean Tinguely in 1977, the Tinguely Fountain stands where the stage of the city theater used to be. To commemorate the theater, Tinguely used scrap metal from the old structure and created 10 figures: “dr Theater Head”, “d ‘Spider”, “dr Waggler”, “d’ Fountain”, “dr Spritzer”, “dr Suuser”, “dr Wäädel”, “dr Schuufler”, “s ‘Seechter” and “dr Querpfyffer”. It’s open for the public to view the whole year. While not in full-operation all the time, the fountain spews water into the air in different parts of the 304 square-meter fountain. During the winter, the figures turn into beautiful ice sculptures.
While you’re at it, make your way to the Jean Tinguely Museum to see the works of one of Basel’s most prominent artists. Swiss artists are commonly known as great painters of the Italian Rennaissance, but Tinguely, though not quite as known, is responsible for an impressive body of work throughout the years. His art focuses around moving mechanical sculptures as seen at the Tinguely Fountain. At the museum, visitors can see his work from over the decades as well as art created by other artists and sculptors inspired by his work. The exhibits can be wacky and complicated, but it’s also fun and interactive as these machines are meant to move and be operated.
Mark the end of your tour around Old Town at the Spalentor. This fortified gate marks the end of Old Town and dates back to the 1370s. It used to be part of the Old Town walls until it was destroyed in 1866 to allow Basel town to grow. There used to be three gates to defend the old Basel, but the Spalentor is the most impressive and has stood alone since. It was used to control the western approach to the city from France. On the walls and around the perimeter, you will see many ornamentations, emblems, and design features that marked the glory days of the Old Town.
If it’s your first time in Basel, you simply must hop on a river cruise on the Rhine. There are many options for you to choose from. If you’re pressed for time, there is an 85-minute cruise operated by Basler Personenschifffahrt. If you have even less time, you can simply cross the river to Kleinbasel via the Faehri boats. You can also have a full day tour, a cruise that includes dinner, Sunday brunch, or game night cruises. Whichever way you choose to get on the Rhine, this is a unique experience to see some of Basel’s best sights.
Basel makes paper and everything related to it into an art form at the Basel Paper Mill Museum. This mill has been in the business of making paper since 1453. Now, it’s growing in popularity as a unique destination in Basel. Aside from learning about historic methods for dipping paper, printing, and bookbinding, you can also make a page to mark your visit. A hand-operated machine is powered by a waterwheel that presses rags and pulp into sheets of paper. Here you will also see many old techniques in ink and paper production still used today, plus dozens of interesting artifacts like stamps, quills, and typewriters.
Basel is home to Switzerland’s oldest Zoological Garden. The Basel Zoo, affectionately nicknamed “Zolli” by the locals, features over 640 European animals. It focuses its exhibits on indigenous and exotic species. The zoo was established in 1874 but has been at the forefront of innovative and modern enclosure design. The zoo is very active in fundraising for the care of their animals and has successfully bred several large species including three new lion cubs and new enclosures for monkeys and elephants. It also has an aquarium called the Vivarium. This is a usual favorite for kids where they can get close to around 500 species of fish, reptiles, and amphibians.
Escape rooms have become a worldwide trend that has also arrived in Basel. The city has several escape room operators all offering different scenarios that you can enjoy however large your group is. Walk-ins are welcome, but booking a spot online is highly recommended. The demand for these escape rooms is arbitrary. Some days you have to fall in line, while other days you can just walk right in. While there is definitely a lot to see in Basel outside of these rooms, it’s a great way to take a quick break from history and experience something completely different. If you want to check it out, head on to Escape Room Basel or One Hour Escape.
A great Swiss icon is chocolate. No matter where you are in the country, each city will have its own array of artisan chocolates that will surely make your mouth water. In Basel, not only can you feast your eyes and lips to an incredible array of chocolates. You can even try your hand at making them yourself. Chocolatier Beschle invites guests to watch the fine process of chocolate making and test what they’ve learned by making their own chocolate. These workshops run for around two hours with a minimum capacity of 10 participants.
Visit Switzerland’s largest and most significant public art collection at the Kunstmuseum Basel. It is listed as a heritage site of national significance with the largest collection of work by the Holbien family, starting with the Amerbach Cabinet purchased in 1661. The collections span from the early 15th century until contemporary arts of the modern era. The first building, Hauptbau, was inaugurated in 1936 to present the museum’s collections. In 1980, the Gegenwart was built with the inauguration of the “Museum für Gegenwartskunst”. The expansion is dedicated to contemporary art. In April 2016, a third expansion was built across the street with the Neubau for special exhibitions and presentations of art from existing collections.
Fondation Beyeler is another popular museum that showcases masterpieces from artists of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. It all began as an antiquarian bookshop run by Ernst and Hildy Beyeler in 1945. After a long history of business growth and keen eye for the unique, the Beyeler Foundation was created in 1982 that led to the opening of Fondation Beyeler in 1997. While the art collections are definitely impressive, what draws crowds to this museum is the sheer beauty of its location and architecture. It’s located in a park surrounded by old trees and water lily ponds with views of cornfields, grazing cows and sheep, and vineyards on the foothills of the Black Forest. The museum also focuses on visitors’ sensorial and personal experiences with the art collections and holds workshops, cultural events, and art meditation.
The best time to shop in Basel is December where all the marketplaces, plazas, and shopping malls are illuminated with twinkling lights. Nevertheless, Basel has an amazing shopping scene all throughout the year. You’ll find specialty shops and homegrown stores alongside high-end boutiques and large shopping malls. Basel has a shopping mile that starts at Claraplatz in Kleinbasel, across the bridge to Markplatz, following Freie Strasse until Bankverein. Away from the city are areas such as the St. Jakob Park where you can find the Manor, a department store chain found all over Switzerland but headquartered in Basel.
An exciting way to immerse yourself in Basel culture is to visit any one of its fantastic theaters. Take a pick from a wide variety of shows from small productions performed by amateur actors and heartwarming shows by the Basel Children’s Theater to puppet performances at the Marionetten Theater or internationally renowned musicals and contemporary dances. The most popular destination is the city center’s The Theater Basel, showcasing various performances of opera, ballet, and theater.
With over 6,000 toys, dolls, stuffed animals, models, and carousels, the Spielzeug Welten Museum is every child’s and child-at-heart’s dream. Here you will find contemporary toys as well as antique artifacts well-preserved and on display. It also showcases folk art of nativity scenes that allude to life in early Naples. Figures and dolls are dressed in intricate costumes and seen to be art collections in themselves. The museum also boasts of 2,500 teddy bears which is thought to be the largest collection in the world. If you don’t want to spend money on entrance fees, you can walk around the museum to see six large display windows that feature items from the museum’s collections.
In a city as culturally diverse as Basel, you can expect an impressive variety of delicacies both local and international. There are several dining options all over the city, from small cafes to fine dining restaurants. Basel deserves a bit more recognition when it comes to gastronomic experiences, especially since it has more Michelin stars per square mile than San Sebastian in Spain. Splurge at the three-Michelin-star Le Cheval Blanc at Les Trois Rois hotel for an indulgent lunch with the view of of German, Italian, and French industrial ships cruising through the Rhine River. If your pocket is not that deep, there are an excellent selection of bistros and small restaurants that serve filling and delicious meals. Find authentic local food at Brotli Bar or a generous serving of Raclette at Walliser Kanne.
Basel’s location at the country’s border gives it a unique advantage over all other cities in Switzerland. At Dreiländereck you will find the Three Country Corner – the spot where the borders of Switzerland, France, and Germany meet. The spot is also a monument that overlooks the Rhine River, making it a great place for a relaxed stroll after you take an epic selfie.
All around Basel (and Switzerland, for that matter) are fields and areas of greenery and nature. There are several parks around the city, but there are a wealth of playgrounds for kids to go crazy. The most popular ones are called Robiespielplatz or Robinson Playgrounds, taken from the famous adventurer Robinson Crusoe. The legendary character was stranded on a deserted island and had to find a way to survive. This is the main philosophy behind Robinson Playgrounds – a place with tools, equipment, toys, and structures designed to teach children important life skills through play. In these areas, children are encouraged to explore, get dirty, and simply enjoy being outside and having fun. You can find a list of locations in Basel at Play-Basel.
The Petersplatz flea market is a unique shopping experience in Basel. It’s held every Saturday from 7:00AM to 4:00PM. This small park square at Petersplatz is absolutely packed with people looking for something one of a kind. There are some stalls that show up every Saturday, but you’ll always find a new vendor so a trip to the flea market is always a new experience. Here you’ll find jewelry, vintage clothing, home decor, and other pre-loved items. Browse through the stalls and find yourself a real bargain.
You’re a couple of hours away anyway, why not make the most out of your location? There is definitely much to do and see in Basel, but if you’re looking to make the most out of your travels, France and Germany are just a train ride away. Make your way to Château du Haut-Koenigsbourg in France for the best views of the upper Rhine Plains. Just an hour away from Basel, the castle has a rich history of princes and warlords dating back to the 12th century. If Germany is more your thing, the Rotteln Castle is just a short trip from the border. Found in the city of Lorrach, the castle sits on a mountain spur and surrounded by forests and greenery.
Roger is a little obsessed with travel. He has been to over 40 countries, broken 3 suitcases and owned over 10 backpacks in 12 months. What he doesn't know about travel, ain't worth knowing!